Living with Cognitive Dissonance: Sonia’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sonia” is a pseudonym.

My mom told me a while ago, “It seems impossible to live it [the Gothard/fundie lifestyle] in moderation, although that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I didn’t buy the whole program. Instead, I took from it that which I thought was useful and healthy. I rejected a lot, but maybe you don’t have any way of knowing that. There were many women who perceived me to be a great ‘compromiser’, and I mean that word in a very negative sense.” She was right. I didn’t have any way of knowing that. (This reminded me of other posts I’ve read such as “PICKING THINGS UP FROM THE CULTURE, HOMESCHOOL EDITION” and Libby Anne’s “THEN WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US THAT, MOM?” from a couple of years back.) What I did know intellectually and intuitively ended up producing a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance,
fear, and anguish that has plagued me for years.

My parents didn’t understand that even if THEY didn’t wholeheartedly buy into the entire program, the fact that for the most part they would only let us spend our time around other families who DID buy into the entire program gave tacit approval to the entire program.

Oddly enough, my mom was the one to teach me to think critically, though I don’t think she really expected me to use that skill to the extent I did to think outside my little box. She told me two things when I was young that eventually led to my most significant “lightbulb moments.” First, she told me very clearly that she was educating me as well as my brother because I was smart and it wasn’t responsible to do otherwise on the off chance I had to support myself. (Incidentally, she also said she got a lot of flak for doing this.) Second, when I asked why I was allowed to wear jeans/pants when the other girls weren’t, all I can remember is getting a response to the effect of, “Well we aren’t THAT strict.”

So, after a few years when I started noticing things weren’t adding up, I asked more questions and assumed, logically, that if my parents could bend the rules and pick and choose where they saw fit, I could too as long as I had a logical, reasonable explanation for wanting to do so.

Lightbulb. Obviously, we all know this wasn’t true, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I was very confused. This is where I ran into trouble. Whenever I had ideas that ran contrary to “popular” belief and I brought up those issues, I always came armed with a list of very respectful but coherent reasons as to why there were major holes in what we heard at church. I simply could not understand how my parents, who made the logical decision to ignore two VERY big parts of the dogma, i.e. female education and modesty, did not see the other gaping holes. Most of the time, I felt like my concerns and opinions were brushed off and treated as a nuisance. My speaking out was attributed to youthful rebellion and I was not taken seriously.

One of the issues I kept bringing up because it made no sense was courtship (or arranged marriage as I like to refer to it). For years, I had closely watched all the happy smiles, wedding day first kisses, and subsequent babies that magically appeared nine months after the wedding. I followed the ins and outs of The Courtship Files at my church with rapt attention. I was curious to see what my future looked like. Something in my gut told me that there was something amiss, and I was quite vocal about it to my parents. These marriages seemed to materialize with next to no input from the XX-chromosomed party and after the wedding, all the new brides had this glassy-eyed, “totally blessed” look. Oh, and they would quote Proverbs 31 and Titus 2 and Ephesians 5 ad nauseam and have their members-only Bible studies for newly married couples.

Nonetheless, I really tried hard to buy into it despite the cognitive dissonance because I didn’t have a choice.

I really did try until I encountered a classic, “let’s abuse Hester Prynne” incident during church that resulted in lightbulbs going off all over the place.

This girl from our church had gone away to a conservative Christian college and ended up coming back pregnant. They made her stand up in church on a Sunday morning and apologize for her “sin” when she was probably five or six months pregnant. Even as young as I was (probably 8 or 9), I was acutely aware there was something very wrong about the whole thing. I do have to admit, much to my chagrin, that my first response was to hop on the stone-throwing train everyone around me was gleefully riding because that was the “right” response to “sin.” However, two lightbulbs blinked over my head as I sat there. First, a little voice in the back of my head gave me some advice regarding my own future self-preservation. It said, “You better never do anything this bad because you know that if you did, they would turn on you too in a second. And if you do anything like this, you better damn well keep it hidden.” Lightbulb. Second, I wondered why the pastor and elders standing behind this woman on the podium didn’t also have to apologize in front of the church for their sins too. Lightbulb. I remember feeling much more guarded after that point.

Back to the subject of my own future, the last serious conversation I remember having with my parents regarding courtship happened at bedtime one night sometime during my preteen years. Inevitably, conversations about this courtship thing had begun to take place more frequently. My parents explained, yet again, what courtship meant and what its implications were for my future. I presented every logical objection I could think of as I had done many times before. What if I go to a college in another state? (Remember the educating me thing? Yeah…that.) What if I never move back home after college? What if I meet “the one” before you do? What if I don’t tell you about him? What if “him” is a…HER??? How do you plan to police me that carefully?

To my parents’ credit in this instance, my objections were handled calmly and without anger. However, the conversation concluded with, “We will deal with it when it happens and at that point, you’ll understand how important courtship and this transfer of authority over you are.” I remember very clearly telling them, “I’m not doing it.” They calmly responded that I would feel differently later, and it’s ok that I don’t feel like that now. I responded flatly with, “No you don’t understand. My feelings about this aren’t going to change. I am not doing this.” I was resolute. My parents said that that was ok for now and bid me sweet dreams. What they really didn’t factor in was how deadly serious I was. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which I meant what I said. If my parents had continued on the oppressive courtship track later in my life, I guarantee I would have staged some sort of massive, storm-the-Bastille style revolt. If I had had to choose between courtship and losing any relationship I had with my parents (or God for that matter), I would have chosen the latter in a heartbeat.

After all, I wasn’t just a walking uterus.

I had a brain too.

Fortunately, I was never pushed to make this choice because my parents ended up divorcing. This set off by far the biggest lightbulb. Over the years, I had “appealed” to my parents time and time again and presented coherent, logical objections to a wide range of topics as a result of the many little lightbulbs that were periodically going off in my head. I don’t even remember most of these encounters, but I do remember having the feeling consistently that my parents didn’t really hear me or take me seriously. 

And since I didn’t have the agency to make my own choices regarding my own beliefs, I had to live with what was there.

However, with the divorce came the freedom to start to carve my own path and with that freedom, I had to start reexamining everything I’d ever been told. There were some physical abuse issues involved preceding the divorce which I was witness to. The elder board and pastor of our church said that my dad should move out of our home temporarily, pending biblical “counseling.” Once the church said that both my parents had been sufficiently “counseled,” my parents were instructed to “reconcile.” My mom refused. Such began an extremely tumultuous few years for all of us and the unraveling of the proverbial carpet for me.

I knew instinctively that my parents needed to go their separate ways and that this was the best outcome for all of us.

I simply didn’t understand all the theological discourse that said that people couldn’t divorce for any reason whatsoever, even in cases of abuse.

On the heels of that came the next logical question: if divorce wasn’t unequivocally wrong in every circumstance, as I had been told, what else wasn’t unequivocally wrong? Lightbulb. My entire world was turned on its head and I felt like I couldn’t trust anything I had ever been taught or thought I had known. This was very traumatic, and I spent most of the decade following and more trying to sort out what exactly I believed. I have wondered in the years since why my parents didn’t listen to me or why I felt like they didn’t.

I have wondered why my concerns, opinions, and expressions of distress were not interpreted as red flags or catalysts for change.

For years I felt like I didn’t have a voice and even now, I have a pathological, anxiety-attack-inducing fear of not being heard.

I am, however, very grateful for the lightbulb moments and the conversations they inspired. I hope I remember more of those moments as I grow older and I am grateful for the moments of mental clarity along the way I do remember that allowed me to navigate the twilight zone of my growing up years. Those moments of clarity kept me sane and kept me from being fully brainwashed. They kept my spirit alive to fight, and when I think back on them now they give me a sense of peace that I can find my way in the world, and I can trust what I know is right.

On Feeling Betrayed, Validated, and Brave: Jeri Lofland’s Thoughts

An IBLP seminar in Atlanta.
An IBLP seminar in Atlanta.

Jeri Lofland blogs at Heresy in the Heartland. The following was originally published by Jeri on January 30, 214, and is reprinted with permission.


And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty

Why don’t you tell them the truth?

 Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
I want to see you be brave
Show me how big your brave is
~ Sara Bareilles, “Brave”


Watching the Grammys was a last-minute decision. We’d kissed the kids goodnight but knew our congested sinuses wouldn’t let us sleep yet. So we turned on the TV and I’m so glad we did!

I had never heard of Sara Bareilles–no, I really don’t keep up with popular music–but I recognized Carole King right away. I sat absolutely enthralled with their amazing duet performance, only to be surpassed by their comments of mutual admiration afterward. Somehow the three minutes of interaction between those women affected me deeply. I have watched the segment again and again and replayed it in my head countless times.

Carole King’s words, her music, the emotions she shared with Sara and all of us in the audience, along with Sara’s passion and her song, felt like a gift with miraculous powers to repair some damage done to my heart long ago. I feel like a more complete person than I was before hearing them sing. The rest of the show was fun and amazing in its own way, but that one piece represented to me the magic of Art: sharing a gift with enriching powers of its own.

Perhaps “Brave” struck me the way it did because the last week has been so emotionally turbulent. Not in a bad way, but still…

Last week a shocking new series of revelations appeared on the Internet, exposing Bill Gothard, our cult leader of days long past, for the pathological fraud he was (and is). Reading the story as it dribbles out in serial form has been surreal. With each installment, I can picture my bedroom in Oak Brook, picture window facing Gothard’s office across the driveway.

I learned while working on Gothard’s staff that he was not what he appeared to be.

Not what many of his followers took him for. Not who my parents thought he was. While we his brainwashed army of second-generation devotees mentally flogged ourselves for every potential breach of the cult protocol, Gothard did not adhere to his own “non-optional, universal life principles”.

My husband and I each slipped away from IBLP quietly. I was sent away by Gothard in the summer of ’99, Chris left on his own six months later. From that point, we set about freeing ourselves from the legalism and reprogramming our poisoned minds. We weren’t aware of the poison at first, though. We were still nostalgic about our years at the Institute. It was where our relationship began, after all. We’d go back to visit friends occasionally, or just drive around the grounds reliving the good memories. Over time the locations lost their pull on us. We had dreams–sometimes nightmares–about going back to work there.

Judging Gothard’s teaching by its “fruit”, we concluded that many of his ideas were downright toxic. It was hard to speak out, though. So many of our friends, family members, and even new acquaintances were Gothard supporters, or had been exposed to his seminars in their youth and didn’t see anything dangerous in them. We just sounded “bitter”, the strongest pejorative in Gothardom.

When we felt safe we could sometimes talk about how “inconsistent” Gothard was in practice. Even this made some uncomfortable. People feel defensive when you question the authenticity of someone they trust, or trusted once upon a time. The more distance we put between ourselves and the past, the more clearly we could see that Gothard was just another manipulative cult leader.

Sadly for us, he was a slick fellow who convinced our parents he had the answers.

I started my blog partly as a safe place to question the Gothard narrative and to recount my experiences and the “bad fruit” it produced. I tried to maintain an even, journalistic tone, even as I personally came to regard William Gothard as a fucking asshole, a sham and a predator hiding under a guise of exceptional holiness.

Reading the firsthand account of Gothard’s former secretary over the last week, and watching others come out to corroborate her story, has been tremendously validating to me. While her tale might not seem all that offensive on the surface, it is damning when read in light of Gothard’s own teaching and strict standards for others. He made generous allowances for himself, while tolerating nothing less than perfection and submission from his subordinates. He patently violated his own rules, which he marketed as the very wisdom of God. Nothing I have ever said about my former employer was as harsh as he deserves.

As satisfying as it feels to be validated and to watch Gothard’s house of cards collapse, it is exquisitely painful at the same time. I rejoice to see his empire fall, much as a former prisoner would applaud the demolition of the walls of his captivity. And yet, that empire was built of my blood, sweat, and tears. Thousands of us can point to pieces of our selves that we sacrificed to advance that sick man’s vision. We lost much of irreplaceable value.

And that is why tears rolled down my face this week as I stood in my kitchen spreading cheese on lasagna noodles, listening to “Brave” and the rest of Sara Bareilles’ album The Blessed Unrest. They were tears to memorialize the things I was encouraged to “yield” in favor of Gothard’s ideal, for God’s sake. These things died before drawing breath, miscarriages I never knew in an adolescence I never had: my first date, holding hands, a boyfriend, my first curious kiss in a quiet corner, even talking to male peers without feeling queasy, pulling on an old pair of jeans, experimenting with makeup, realizing I was a free adult in the eyes of the law, choosing a college major, getting a degree, a high school graduation for that matter, a prom dress, high school pictures, a wedding dance with my dad, my favorite artists in concert, feeling sexy as I became a woman, feeling the sun on my legs, getting tan lines before stretch marks, years when I could have been earning money or college credits…

And the pain of steeling myself to believe in “God’s will”!

Against my emotions. Against what my body was sensing. Of giving myself fortifying speeches in the corner every time I felt my heart would come out of my chest, reminding myself that my heart was deceitful and wicked and not to be trusted. The times I cried myself to sleep, or pounded out my frustration on the piano in the dining room because the rest of Christendom wouldn’t see “the truth”.

My friends and I made these sacrifices and others to serve our God by working for his “servant” Bill Gothard. Now, I want Gothard’s empire to collapse, for the good of humanity. I am more than willing to help bring it down. At the same time, I recognize that each brick I tear out represents a child’s education, a man’s career, an abused child, a couple’s budding relationship, all burned on the IBLP altar in the belief that God would be pleased.

But Bill was a fraud and his empire was built on lies.

And we are all breaking the silence.

So after I cried over my lasagna, I danced in my kitchen. Because bravery is a beautiful thing.


Finding Freedom from My Demons: Nicholas Ducote’s Story, Part Three

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

< Part Two

Much of what I have discussed is about my childhood and teenage years, but there were three incidents after my marriage that proved my parents were still trapped in ATI Parent Mode.

I assumed, because my parents actually said on multiple occasion, that after I was married I would be treated differently — more independently. I knew to expect this because it’s just the way people who are into courtship think.  However, my parents have continually chosen to put their fundamentalism in front of our relationship, despite me now being the “Spiritual Leader of my Household” (in their mind, not mine — you could best describe my marriage as an egalitarian party, looking at you Doug Wilson). They know that I do not agree with them, so most parents would just back off with the religious judgment and prioritize their relationship. But not my parents!

Over a steak dinner celebrating my graduation from my MA program in 18 months with a 4.0, my father half-joked, half-claimed that he lost faith in the university institution because I grew up to disagree with them politically. For my older sister, who converted to Christianity after college, it worked. But my education “failed” me. It failed me because I did not turn out conservatives like them. To his credit, he apologized after I blew up at him (and openly talked about the event on Facebook). I’m a forgiving person, so I let it go.

I thought, maybe this is the last time, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

When I was visiting the next day, I had one of my most triggering conversations I’ve ever had with them. They claimed that the black people of New Orleans are “culturally more violent because they have a long history of accepting government benefits.” I tried to keep my cool, but our argument quickly brought me into a blind rage. This wasn’t the first time I was triggered by a conversation like this and my parents had been trying harder to not argue about politics with me. It might seem strange that I, someone who debated competitively for eight years, would have such an uncontrollable, visceral reaction to a political argument.

I called them racists and, to say the least, they got pissed. The conversation continued deteriorating and I couldn’t take it any longer. I stormed out of their hotel room and said they could just leave. They had brought me crawfish, my favorite food, but when my mom called in tears telling me I had forgotten it in the room, I told them to just throw it away — I couldn’t see them again. Later that day, my oldest sister talked me down. But this incident drove a big wedge my parents’ and my relationship. I sent them a series of emails that led to me calling them Victorian, sexist, racist cultists.

Political arguments with my parents trigger me because the conversations always include a level of personal judgment.

Debate rounds take place outside the realm of personal judgments — I can advocate a position and my opponents don’t take it personally or judge me.  In fact, some of my biggest rivals in college debate became my closest friends.  When I started attending college and developing concise counter-arguments to my parents’ zealous Reaganism, conservatism, and… well, how do you describe someone who thinks giving the women the right to vote ruined America? My challenges to their political beliefs are what gave me the courage to question many of the cultic philosophies deeply ingrained in me.

Even though I remained a devoted Christian who attended church and bible study for the first two years of college, my parents reacted to my transforming political beliefs as if I was as rejecting the Gospel. One of their biggest mistakes was telling me I was only “in a phase,” and would believe like they did when I joined the “real world and started paying taxes.” (I have had a full-time job since the age of 16, even paying the dreaded self-employment tax, so I’m not unaware of taxation).

My father took my political beliefs incredibly personally.

We had lots of arguments about rich people paying more taxes, namely by repealing the Bush Tax Cuts. My parents helped me a little bit through my four years of undergrad, they bought my books and paid my $50/month car insurance. I still worked a part-time job throughout college and debated one or two weekends a month around the US for a scholarship. Occasionally, I had to ask my parents for a few hundred dollars, but I always paid them back quickly. I hated feeling dependent on them and financial independence gave me. After I graduated, my father informed me that he resented the help he gave me, and couldn’t stomach giving me more, because of how I felt about taxes. Even though I only argued the richest people should pay more taxes, he internalized that as an attack on him.

After the incident in the hotel room, I didn’t talk to my parents much on the phone. I stuck to email because I could control my triggers and reactions much better. Over a year after my marriage, and nine months after the hotel incident, my mother called to have a chat on the phone.  During my childhood, we always got along well and she was my confidante. As long as she doesn’t get judgmental, I enjoy her company. I remember it being one of the better conversations we had in quite awhile when she decided to bring up the state of my virginity on my wedding day.

To be clear, I told my mother I was moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) nine months before my wedding (two years prior to this phone call). One would think this would have given her ample time to discuss the consequences of my sinful lifestyle, but she chose to bring it up a year after my marriage.

After finding out I was “impure,” she said that, later in my marriage, I would “face consequences” for my sins. When I told her that I didn’t think it was a sin to live with the woman I was going to marry (we had been engaged over six months at that point) she said that she was “sorry” I believed that and obviously I had bigger problems. Eventually, she said that the root of all of our conflict was my sinful lifestyle — not, of course, their raising me in a homeschooling cult, still clinging desperately to those beliefs, and refusing to accept my personal development/evolution. I pushed back and then my mom started crying.

It’s not like I enjoy making my mother cry, but I now refuse to be manipulated, guilted, and shamed.

And what came next proved the depths of my mother’s spiritual and emotional manipulation. She reminded me of the purity pledge I made to her at 14 years old. That was it, I told her the conversation was over.  She apologized and said she didn’t want our great conversation to end this way. I curtly replied that if she wanted to have a good time, she could just not judge my spiritual condition. My father sent me an email after, as he always does now after my mom and I fight. In it, he took on a self-righteous air about how my rebelliousness (against them and God) was the cause of our conflict and that Jesus was right when he said the righteous man would cause strife among his family.

I guess he forgot the one about a father provoking his child to wrath — but that’s my parents! Apply verses selectively to shame, guilt, and manipulate. I replied that I spent the last six years forming my own beliefs and I knew they were wrong ethically, morally, spiritually, and politically.

Even now, I am still on my father’s insurance (because of a crazy accident that left me with a fractured L5 pars and then an ordeal that left me with dying femur heads and a hip replacement) and this has made me feel like I cannot publicly speak against them.  When I first became a frequent public critic of my parents and their beliefs, they would email me or call me and plead with me to essentially just let it be.  I told them that I believed my cohort of homeschooled peers had been subjected to systemic problems within the Christian homeschool movement and I intended to get to the bottom of it.  I moved from Louisiana to Oregon so I could be surrounded by fewer fundamentalists and more free thinkers who will judge me less for my progressive politics.  I also moved to get more distance from my parents so I could freely pursue my advocacy, which would include my personal testimony (it feels funny using that word, but it’s applicable here).

The final straw in my attempt to repair our relationship came just a few weeks ago after I underwent my hip replacement.

When I first learned that I would need a hip replacement, my parents made it very clear that they were too busy moving to be expected to come up to Oregon to help me after the surgery. This was fine with me since their presence usually just triggers me. At the same time, I wished that I did want their help because that’s what parents are for, right? And I knew my usual lines of emotional defense would be compromised by my weak physical state. You probably think this is incredibly heartless of me, but the only consistency in my relationship with my parents is that they will somehow judge me with their self-righteousness and ruin whatever good times may have occurred.

The day of my surgery, my mother was bugging me to talk to her. She said “a mother worries when her favorite son is having a major surgery thousands of miles away” and said “glad to know you are alive.” Despite my wife calling her before and after my procedure. After that, I told her to stop trying to guilt me into talking to her more. That wasn’t the way to make me want to talk to her. Later that day, she became infuriated because I updated my Facebook, but didn’t send her a text. So she didn’t get the update until four hours after my status update. I eventually texted her back later that night and gave her an update, but she didn’t reply, so we tried calling her phone only to discover it was off. I believe right around the time she got pissy, my spinal block wore off and I experienced the worst pain of my life. I cried for thirty straight minutes and couldn’t even think. Luckily they doped me up, but I was still a wreck.

A few hours later, my mother posted one of the most passive aggressive Facebook statuses I have ever seen.

You see, although I didn’t have time to text a bunch of people, I did have time to update by Facebook status to let a few hundred people who were concerned about me know what was up. She proclaimed to the Facebook World that she was “breaking up” with it because it found out about me before she did. (Although my wife tried to call her and the phone signal was just bad in the hospital.). The way the status was worded, I could tell she was incensed.

As I finally got a nurse to enter the long distance code on the hotel landline, I tried to call her. I texted my dad saying I didn’t know what was up and I was trying to get in touch with mom. As I lay in the hospital bed — a wreck physically and emotionally — my father responded with this text message:

“Moms phone is off. You hurt her terribly. I’m very disappointed in you. I’m also upset at how you treat her. She is concerned about you. And you blew her off.”

I was just blown away. My mother turned off her phone, the night after my hip replacement, because her feelings were hurt. It’s hard to believe she was truly concerned about me since she turned her phone off.

At this point, the only indication I had that my mom was upset was the passive aggressive Facebook status and my dad’s text message. Because exactly what I wanted to deal with then was my parents’ bullshit.

This was the moment my parents needed to just show sincere compassion, selflessness, and love.

Sure, maybe I was mean, but I was just out of surgery, doped up with insane amounts of oral and intravenous opioids, my brain polluted by lingering anesthesia, and unable to move my right side without immense pain, which was swollen to twice its normal size. On top of that, my wife got food poisoning that night!

With all the energy I could muster, I slowly composed and recomposed a message about ten times. I met with a therapist earlier in the month to prepare for this very moment because I knew I would be vulnerable and my parents would try to manipulate me. It seems completely irrational to expect such behavior, but my instincts proved right. I told my parents that their reactions were completely unacceptable and that I needed space and time. I didn’t mince my words and I told them their attempts to guilt and manipulate me lost them the privilege of getting constant updates.  Everyone else in my life gave me nothing but positivity in my moment of need, but my parents put on an entire dramatic performance because I posted to Facebook a few hours before texting them directly.

It seems like I have gone on quite a tangent since my days in ATI, but all three of these instances occurred because of the way they allowed Gothardism to take over their lives. To them, I may always be the son who chose to live, and thrive, outside their Umbrella of Authority. Despite having almost ten years to indoctrinate and brainwash me into their version of cultic Christianity, they continue to try and enforce their perceived God-given right to judge me (or “show me the light”) into adulthood. I now refuse to allow them to treat me as their subordinate. I demand respect and I try to avoid controversial topics.

Unfortunately, nearly every topic is corrupted by their Gothardist fundamentalism.

Only in an ATI home could you get into an argument on Christmas morning about how women should never have gotten the right to vote or divorce. They conceptualize my mental illnesses (anxiety and triggers) as spiritual weakness because Gothard told them that’s how it is. The morning before I left to go to Afghanistan to teach debate for a month, I had terrible anxiety, and my dad just chuckled and said “well you wanted to go there.”

My dad likes to chuckle when I’m in a really awful situation. 

I talked to a lot of my ATI friends about all these events that I’ve described and most of them have patched their relationships up with their parents. Most of those friends’ parents have liberalized a lot, but not my parents. My friends are constantly baffled by the way my parents treat me. Because my parents still conceptualize our relationship as that of a parent-child, when I assert myself, it creates conflict. They seem to believe this conflict is the result of my sinful lifestyle. As long as they cannot even understand why what they do is so hurtful, they have no positive impact on my life. Every positive encounter with them becomes overshadowed by an intensely painful experience.

There are only so many times you want to open yourself up when you know what the result will be.

That’s my story. For the ATI kids out there: Did your relationship with your parents improve as they moved away from Gothardism? Does my observation hold true in your life?

The Good Girl: Atarah’s Story

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HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Atarah” is a pseudonym.

Black strapped shoes, white stockings, pleated navy skirt, peter pan collared white blouse, brown pig tails, a splash of freckles, and wide, eager eyes completed my look. I was a mini version of the apprenticeship students. I was gonna be just like them someday.

After all, I was a good girl.

My parents counted the days till they would be allowed to join the program. Their excitement was palpable, and I still remember it, as a four year old. As a child you are unaware of how your parent’s decisions affect you. You just go with it. You trust, and you know nothing else. Thus begins my journey through Gothardism that spanned over 20 years.

I don’t know how much detail to give. You know the logistics — I won’t bore you with our family’s particular brand. But we were ATI through and through. I don’t say this lightly, but my parents worshipped (and still do) Gothard.  My early years were grounded in his principles, and my formative years saturated with his teachings.

I really was a good girl. My impressions of my childhood were that I was an easy child to parent, as I was obedient to a fault.  I remember having anxiety over wanting to obey every rule perfectly.  I rarely got in trouble, and unlike many ATI survivors, wasn’t often spanked. (As I remember it.)  I developed this identity as being obedient and perfect and never questioning authority.  In fact, I backed authority.  Vehemently.  This made me my parent’s favorite, and an enemy of sorts to my poor younger siblings, who were not in the least so perfectly inclined.

As I grew into young adulthood, this good girl image brought with it an oversensitive conscience and hyper spirituality. No surprise there.  I actually thought it was a good thing.  I thought I was on track.  Meanwhile, I never felt satisfied with myself or my spiritual walk.  How can you, when nothing less than perfect is acceptable?

I remember I first questioned the whole Gothard thing at about age 21. It was very mild, very gentle, but in utter desperation to fix our falling-apart-family, I timidly asked my parents:

If we believed all these things, why weren’t they helping us? Why weren’t our lives matching up?

That was the first time I questioned Gothard in the slightest, but it wasn’t the last.  Over the years as I watched my family sink deeper into dysfunction, as I experienced pain in my own life, and as I grew a little courage, I would start to turn over these things in my mind.  Even if I was afraid to speak much about it, I was thinking.  It was a necessary process.  The time came when I did find courage to bring my concerns (albeit largely unformed) to my parents, but they were always dismissed.

After all, Gothard is never wrong.

When I say my parents idolize Gothard, it is hard for me to write about that.  They didn’t hang framed pictures of him around the house or say blatantly that he was always right, or that his teachings were as good as the Bible.  Those things were unsaid.  The absence of these things almost makes it worse, because it was so hard to see through.  Perhaps this is why it took me so many years to see the light.  To me this shows even now, what a web of deceit was spun in our home.  How manipulative the whole thing was. Gothard manipulated my parents, then my parents manipulated me and my siblings.

I was the brain-washed good girl.

In no way will I, or have I ever, blamed Gothard or ATI entirely for my family’s dysfunction.

There were and are issues that no doubt would have been there regardless.  But without question the teachings of Gothard and the ATI way of life (after all, it dictated our whole lives) were an over-arching realm of control.  Gothard’s teachings had alot to do in making my parents the kind of parents they were.  Whatever problems lay with them, Gothard’s program exascerbated to the breaking point. I do blame Gothard for his part.  I do blame my parents for their part.  I blame my parents for letting him in, and never questioning it.

To write personally about this now, isn’t easy for me.

It makes me think about things that are buried deep in my psyche. And the scary thing about that is, Gothard’s way was so inscribed in my thinking, that it may take a lifetime, to unearth every single lie, to overturn every corrupt stone.  When I was married in my mid to late 20s, I was finally set free to think for myself. Almost immediately the detox began.   It is hard to separate my family’s issues and problems from the Gothard/ATI problem.  Because they are so entertwined.  But healing from my past meant facing the truth about Gothard and his teachings.  Don Venoit’s book was a huge help to me in breaking free.  Also the book Boundaries.

The biggest healing I found was in thinking, writing, and verbalizing.  I was able to pick up the story of my past, piece by piece, and evaluate it in the light of truth.  The freedom came, and it was wonderful.

I remember the day I said those turning-point words to my dad.  

I had been married about two years, and in some ways still needed to “cut those strings.”  We were having a huge conflict, that spanned many topics, but Gothard of course came up.  I told him one last time how I felt.  Or at least a little of how I felt.

And then I said it.

I said “I don’t believe Gothard is a godly man.”

My reasons for saying that are many.  Take your pick.  (Twisting scripture, manipulating thousands, the deceit, the many allegations of inappropriate behavior with young women and abuse in his training centers. ) But saying that, actually saying that to my dad, was a turning point.  I have no regrets. I can only hope that one day Gothard will be exposed for the true person he is in such an undeniable way that even my parents will be able to see the truth about him.  They will be the last to believe it, I promise you.

I am sad to say that as of a month ago, Bill Gothard knows me by name. When I was told he asked about me, I almost shivered.  I was horrified.  I have no idea why he should remember me after all these years or why he even knew me by name in the first place. It’s been many years since I saw him last.  I make no bones about it, I have no respect for him.  He is a deceitful old man, who is responsible for his manipulation, lies, and the many homes and lives wrecked by his corrupt power.

As I have moved beyond my ATI past, one of the biggest changes that came in my thinking was in regards to this “good girl” identity.

I’ve finally come to realize I don’t have to be the good girl.  I’m just me.  I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to always have it together.  It’s ok to make mistakes. I remember many, many times while I was still at home, my father speaking angrily to me, pointing his finger and glaring with dark eyes “You’re prideful.  You’re full of pride.” My spirit shriveled up within me.  I would beg him to understand I wasn’t trying to be prideful, I really wasn’t.  I was just trying to be the person he always expected me to be: Perfect.  My identity was The Good Girl , and I felt trapped.  Here I was trying to please him, but in my struggles I still failed to be good enough, and I was the recipient of his anger.

So realizing in my late 20s that I didn’t have to be The Good Girl anymore, well, that was revolutionary!

I’m still on a journey.  I haven’t arrived, I don’t have everything all sorted out. But I’m on that journey. I’m moving from The Good Girl who has to be perfect to just being me.  I am loved, I am valuable, I am unique, I am accepted, I am beautiful.  Simple statements that were once Greek to me.

I share my story (and this is only a small part of it!) because I think it is good for me to write about my experiences.  But I also want to share because I want to be a help to the other Good Girls out there.  If you’re reading this, and you can relate to my story, know that you are not alone.

Know that you can change, and you can move beyond your past to be a new person. 

Finding Freedom from My Demons: Nicholas Ducote’s Story, Part Two

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

< Part One

You’re just “spiritually sensitive,” they told me at six years old, my young mind racing with anxiety. As my parents entered further into the labyrinthian maze of fundamentalism, they took my mind with them.  My parents were convinced that Gothardism held the solution to my issues. If religious options and doctrines were a grocery store, my parents plopped down on the Gothard Aisle and expected me to also enjoy their strict diet of Gothardism.  Instead, the doctrines on spiritual warfare, the Umbrella of Authority, and Strongholds increased my anxieties – sending me into a state of hyper-vigilance at night as I waited for the demons.

For years, I confused invasive thoughts, which everyone has, with a Satanic assault on my mind.

I began conceptualizing my mental illness as spiritual warfare very early on, probably by the time I was 7 or 8. Recently converted, it was the only paradigm my parents accepted so they explained things to me through that lens. When I had nightmares night after night, my parents told me it was the rock music I could hear through the walls that my sister listened to – certainly not our rapidly changing family dynamic as my parents tried to apply fundamentalism to my older sisters when they had already begun high school.

I remember one night, perhaps after attending the Basic Seminar a second time, my parents decided we should burn all the things in our house that possessed “demons” or a “demonic influence.”  This included books and movies and music – especially my dad’s vast collection of rock and roll from his youth.   We had to purge our home.  As time went on, I was sucked further into this idea of spiritual warfare causing mental, and even spiritual, issues.  My education in creationism only further complicated science and confused me about how my body worked.  It was not until college at a public university that I began to understand how the brain worked.  I slowly realized that many “mysterious” feelings and thoughts, which supposedly originated from God or Satan, were really my own brain simply working.

There were a number of Gothard’s doctrines that caused a great deal of fear.

One of the most problematic doctrines is the Umbrella of Authority. 

In this model of communication with God, divine inspiration and guidance flows from God, to the male parent, then to the female parent. It’s clear in this model that wives are subordinate to their husbands and ATI leaders preach that a woman’s first duty is to submit to the male leadership in her life. For wives, that means their husband. For daughters it means their fathers. In this model, the father is the only person in the family unit that has a sort of “direct connection with God.”  By this, I mean that if a child believed God was calling them in a certain direction, the child could only pursue that option if their father “confirmed” it with God. This model profoundly impacts a child’s conception of themselves.

If you disagree with your parents, you are disobeying God.

If you are outside of your parents’ Umbrella of Authority, then you are literally opening your mind to Satan and demons.

This brings me to what, in my life, was the most abusive and damaging belief. Gothard rejected the idea of mental illness and replaced it with a concept of “Strongholds” in your mind. Gothard preached that when humans disobeyed God, or their earthly authorities, they allowed Satan to “build a stronghold in your mind.”  From this Stronghold, Satan could tempt you and further lead you down the path to darkness and evil. One of the most common weaknesses for teenagers was rock music and dating, which Gothard believed was one of the fundamental reasons why teenagers rebelled and became perverse. In another giant leap of logic, Gothard argued that physical ailments could be caused by Strongholds. Literally almost every cause in your universe stemmed from your spirituality, which included everything from Christian Contemporary music, to apparently demonic Cabbage Patch dolls, and of course Disney.

So over my teenage years, I gradually developed intense anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks. I would lay awake in my bed, staring at my door waiting for demons to come and get me.  This very real fear was stoked by Jim Logan, who would tell his Real Life Ghost Stories. Logan would preach about his many exorcisms, how African masks would literally scream and cry out if lit on fire, and how children’s misdeeds attracted demons into a Christian home. Especially rock music! I prayed incessantly, sometimes screaming with eyes filled with tears, for God to take away my fear and anxiety – but nothing ever happened.

It was because the cause of my mental anguish was not demons and spiritual warfare.

In fact, the further I get away from my internalized fear of demons and possession (taught to me exclusively through ATI), the better I sleep, the less afraid I am of what’s behind the shower curtain, the more confident I am to walk through a room with the light off, and it is because my brain no longer feels like its survival is threatened by the invisible forces of evil.

In my teenage years, some of the only relief I could manage to muster came from listening to a local modern rock radio station.  First, it connected me with the outside world and gave me hope that one day I could be in that world and not the one I was trapped in.  Second, it allowed me to enter all the conversations my peers had about their favorite music. Third, it gave me something to focus on that took my mind off spiritual warfare, demons, etc.  Unfortunately, I was also taught to believe that rock music would open my mind to Satan. I struggled with the cognitive dissonance for a year or two until I decided that the peace I received from rock music was far more important than risking demonic possession (which I was starting to believe less and less).  I figured, with all my rebelling as a teenager, if I hadn’t been attacked by demons yet I was probably alright.

It’s not uncommon for precocious, smart children to develop anxiety – as I now know my “sensitivity” is really just anxiety – but my parents only worsened it by focusing on solely spiritual causes and solutions.  When we prayed, when I prayed, when we “cried out” – whatever Gothardist ritual we preformed – it never made me feel any less anxious.  As a result, I felt like I must not be a real Christian or must have some sin in my life stopping God from helping me.  I don’t know how many times I prayed the sinner’s prayer, afraid that whatever I had done before wasn’t “sticking.”   I started finding a way out of the anxiety, and sometimes intense panic attacks, by learning about my brain. Not from fundamentalists, but from scientists who studied the brain – neuroscientists.

In the back of my mind, after I left the house, was always a voice warning me that my actions would attract Satan – that he would ruin my life because I chose to live outside my father’s Umbrella, to reject the concept of Strongholds, and I listened to rock music.  For quite awhile, I struggled to find out who I was, beyond my fearful subordination to a fundamentalist God.

I now know that I have a form of complex PTSD, which is triggered by my parents and their fundamentalism, especially when they judge my “sinful lifestyle.” 

For the longest time, I didn’t know why certain things they said or did would “launch” me into an irrational, emotional state.  Sometimes it was something inanimate, like the American flag covering my old bedroom wall or the library of fundamentalist literature I was pressured to read and apply to my life.  It doesn’t affect my life much anymore, but it did quite a bit into my early-20s.  Part of the reason is because I rarely communicate with my parents anymore.  Despite my best efforts, most of our interactions end with me being triggered by their lack of acceptance or the cultic doctrines they still try to evangelize me about.  This isn’t a story that takes place wholly in my past.

The third and final part of my story discusses how (as a 25 year old) I am still impacted by my parents’ fundamentalism.

Part Three >